We live in a world that is ever changing. Gasoline prices have increased over 1,000 percent since the days of my youth. Automotive technology has also been changing. Cars used to be land yachts, big and spacious, but not nearly as safe or efficient as the vehicles of today.
We are seeing an increase in survivability of motor vehicle crashes. When we encounter crashes with entrapment, the occupants are considerably more viable than even a few years ago. How is this possible? Through improved designs, engineering and materials. Looking at the surface of newer cars, we may easily surmise that they are made out of lightweight materials and therefore are easier to work on. But nothing could be farther from the truth. It's what is underneath the outer wrappings that counts.
The strength of today's cars is unsurpassed. Remember Ford pickups from the mid-1960s? A big steel dash, heavy duty and built to take a beating. It would have been less than desirable to smack into that dash during a crash for sure.
In today's world dashboards are a maze of electrical and electronic components surrounded by plastic and, let us not forget, supplemental restraint systems. Yes, they are safe – and apparently flimsier. But behind all that plastic and those wires is a super strong brace that runs from "A" pillar to "A" pillar. This brace is typically made out of high-strength steel, usually a boron alloy, a material that does not cut or bend easily. And that takes us to the issue of cutters and spreaders.
Modern cars present new challenges, ones that are changing rapidly as manufacturers race to provide safer more fuel-efficient vehicles. These changes challenge us to come up with new tools and techniques to perform extrications.
One of the big changes that has come about and will continue to evolve is the expanded use of hydraulic cutters. When the hydraulic rescue tool was invented, the spreader was king. We used its abilities to help us make space as we pushed and twisted car components away from our entrapped patients. With the evolution of cars and hydraulic rescue tools, cutters have now come into their own. As Dave Dalrymple, a friend, colleague and a rescue expert, recently said, the cutter is now king.
The new materials and construction methods used in today's vehicles, coupled with new and evolving rescue techniques, have pushed cutters to the forefront of extrication. We used to be able to push and rip with just our spreaders, but now we must use our cutters to weaken the materials to enable our spreaders to work.
An excellent example of this was demonstrated at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis this spring. During one of the training sessions, we had the opportunity to work on cars and light trucks that were less than five years old.
As most of you know, normally when we train we are restricted to whatever our local junk yard has to donate to us. These are not usually the newest of vehicles. When we went to do a dash lift on a late model Ford 500, we discovered we had to expand our old techniques to make it work. What used to take a simple cut into the "A" pillar to allow us to lift the dash up now required a much deeper cut that extended into the front fender well. This cut was required to weaken the structure enough to make the dash lift happen.
An Evolving Art
Cutters have truly risen from a tool that at one time was primarily used to do roof removals and flaps to a required piece of equipment for the majority of extrication evolutions.
Vehicle rescue is an evolving art and science, one that is driven by the technological leaps and bounds made by the automotive industry. It is easily predictable that this will continue to evolve. We are seeing cars on racetracks that can pull 75 "Gs" of deceleration as they punch through tire barriers and reinforced steel guardrails. And one of those cars can be back on the track the next day. That is an incredible feat, without a doubt. But what is even more incredible is that the drivers involved can be released by medical authorities after a little observation.
This technology will be coming our way – maybe not tomorrow, but sooner than most of us expect. The development of safer and more fuel-efficient automobiles is making it imperative that we keep up with the latest tools, techniques and tricks to enable us to do our job.
The most recent trend is a big move to include cutters in more and more extrication evolutions. One thing for which the fire service is infamous is slowly, but wholeheartedly embracing a trend. This is where a word of caution is needed. Sometimes, as we embrace new ideas, we are inclined to cast off the old ones. Please resist the temptation to do this. Yes, we need to include cutters in more of our evolutions, but there is still a place in our rescue arsenal for the former king – the spreader.
Our mission at the scene of an entrapment is to make space. There are three primary ways to accomplish this – pushing, pulling and cutting – or any combination of those tasks. Spreaders are needed to move components of the car, for example, lifting dashboards and opening doors.
Another area where spreaders excel and are oft times overlooked is lifting the roof of a car that has had its roof crushed. Many rescuers attack this challenge by going to a roof removal operation with hydraulic cutters or reciprocating saws. The roof removal is not a bad goal. However using your spreaders to raise that roof off your patient, making some space, letting in fresh air (great psychological first aid) and possibly giving your medics life saving access should be one of your early objectives. It will also make your roof removal easier and safer.
We need an integrated rescue system where cutters and spreaders can complement each other. The tools we need are available or already in our possession – improved cutters capable of cutting today's high strength alloys and hydraulic power units that can run more than one tool at a time. We should think of our cutters and spreaders in much the same way we think of an axe and a Halligan bar, each great tools in their own right, but working as a "married pair," they can accomplish so much more.
The true challenge is to develop strategies and tactics that allow us to take advantage of what our rescue tool manufacturers have built for us. We need to learn about what our challenges are with newer cars and how to overcome them. As in any operation, it is a combination of tools, talents, tricks and techniques that enables us to achieve our goal of safe and efficient rescues.
Today's vehicles are changing rapidly, driven by numerous factors, among them safety and fuel economy. Neither of those factors is going to disappear. If anything, they will continue to assume higher and higher importance. To keep up with these developments, we need to keep up also. This means new tools that are up to the task, improved cutters that can cut the improved alloys, and they have to be backed up with up-to-date training. For as good as the new tools are, they can be only as good as the training of the people using them.
The Whole System
While the improved cutters can and do make a difference, they are not the sole answer. We need to remember that no single tool and no single piece of training can solve today's challenges. What will make a difference is modern tools, up-to-date training and some good old reliable components working together in a system to make space. It is space, and lots of it, that makes for safe and efficient rescues.
So when you hear about how important it is to have new cutters to keep up with new rescue challenges, remember it is still important to have the spreaders and rams to enable you to take full advantage of what today's new cutters give you. It is the system – the whole system, including the human component – that makes rescues happen.
Editor's Note: Carl D. Avery is 37-year member of the Fire Service, originally serving in the Cleveland (N.Y.) Volunteer Fire Department and now the program coordinator at the York County Fire School in Pennsylvania. He is certified as a Fire Instructor II, is a member of the Transportation Emergency Rescue Committee United States of America and is a National Extrication Judge.